Waxy ears

Written by: 
Dr Roger Henderson

Why do we need earwax?

Earwax is produced by a type of sweat glandAn organ with the ability to make and secrete certain fluids. in the ear canals as a normal bodily function to help clean, lubricate and protect the lining of the ears. This wax also has some antibacterial properties and helps to prevent the skin inside the ears becoming sore and inflamed.

Occasionally, however, too much wax may be produced, or the body's normal method of clearing the wax is impaired, causing the ears to become blocked. Earwax build-up is a very common problem, and many people visit their doctor for earwax removal every year.[1] Several possible reasons for wax build-up include:

  • Having narrow ear canals
  • Having hairy ears
  • Being elderly
  • Having inflammationThe body’s response to injury. of the skin lining the ear canal (such as eczema), which in turn can cause debris in the ear and add to earwax problems
  • Having a past history of impacted earwax.

Did you know? The skin lining the ear canal moves outwards at a rate of 33mm per year, helping to remove wax from the canal

Using cotton buds to clean the ears also increases the likelihood of earwax problems as this can push wax deeper into the ear canal, packing it harder and reducing the chance of it falling out naturally.

What are the symptoms of earwax?

Small amounts of earwax cause no symptoms at all. It is only when large quantities build up and block the ear that symptoms arise. These may include:

  • A loss of hearing or muffled hearing in the affected ear
  • Earache or discomfort
  • Itchiness in the ear
  • Dizziness.

Tests are not generally needed to confirm the diagnosisThe process of determining which condition a patient may have. as it is usually apparent to a doctor through a simple examination of the ear with an instrument called an otoscope.

How is earwax build-up treated?

Most cases of earwax do not require any formal treatment as the wax simply falls out by itself. However, if symptoms are present or the wax becomes impacted and forms a plug in the ear, blocking it, removal is usually recommended.

Eardrops can be bought or prescribed by your doctor to soften the wax, making it easier to remove. These may contain sodium chloride, sodium bicarbonate or olive oil and are normally used for up to 5 days to soften the wax, although they should never be used if the eardrum is perforated.

Did you know? A high fatOne of the three main food constituents (with carbohydrate and protein), and the main form in which energy is stored in the body. diet can increase the chance of earwax build-up

If the wax persists after drops have been used, then irrigation ('ear syringing') may be performed. This involves using a gently pressurised flow of water to help flush out the wax. The procedure is painless, although it may cause a slightly odd sensation. It should not be performed on people with perforated eardrums, an ear discharge or an ear infectionInvasion by organisms that may be harmful, for example bacteria or parasites., or if grommets are present in the ear or ear surgery has been performed in the previous 18 months.

If you are unsuitable for ear irrigation, and a significant problem with earwax persists, then a specialist treatment known as microsuction may be considered. In this procedure, wax is removed with a gentle level of suction under a microscope.

How can I prevent earwax build-up?

Always avoid putting anything into your ears such as cotton buds or matchsticks as these can cause wax to travel deeper down the ear canal, making it more difficult to remove. They can also damage the sensitive skin lining the ear canal and cause inflammationThe body’s response to injury. or infectionInvasion by organisms that may be harmful, for example bacteria or parasites. to develop there. In rare cases, the eardrum itself may be perforated by an object pushed into the ear.

Treating yourself regularly with olive oil may help to prevent wax build-up. While lying down, use a dropper to insert one or two drops of oil at room temperature into the ear. Massage the skin in front of the ear to help the oil to run into the canal, then stay lying down for five or ten minutes. Wipe away any excess oil with a tissue, then repeat on the other side if necessary. This procedure can be repeated once or twice a week at the most to keep wax levels low.

References: 
  1. 'Earwax.' NHS Choices website. Link.